TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — On Friday, Aug. 12, former Hsinchu Mayor, a rising star in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the party’s nominee as candidate for Taoyuan Mayor Lin Chih-chien (林智堅) defiantly committed political seppuku and announced he was dropping out of the race to defend his innocence. Three days earlier, National Taiwan University (NTU) decided to rescind his master’s degree because of plagiarism, with a decision pending on another thesis of Lin’s at Chung Hwa University expected within the next week.
It was a stunning turnaround in a campaign that had started with Lin well ahead in the polls, and the Kuomintang still trying to recover from an extremely bitter internal battle over their candidate that threatened to split the party (see my previous column). In a total flipping of the script, the KMT has now gotten its act together and unified, while it is the DPP that is mired in bitter infighting and at risk of splitting.
Yet just two days before Lin’s exit, President and DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) called for the party to rally behind Lin and his campaign, defended his innocence, and accused the traditionally pan-blue (pro-KMT) NTU of being biased. Key figures, like popular outgoing Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦), rallied to Lin’s side.
But there was talk on the DPP side of dumping Lin over fears that not only might his own campaign be torpedoed, but that he also might bring others down with him. Lawmaker Kao Chia-yu (高嘉瑜) probably being the most famously vocal, calling for “one corpse for five lives,” (一屍五命), with the five lives referring to the DPP candidates running in the big races in north Taiwan.
Kao has a stake in this, she’s on Taipei mayoral candidate Chen Shih-chung’s (陳時中) campaign team, and her concerns may have been fed by the data and feedback their team may have been getting. Others with a stake in the upcoming race, such as DPP Taipei City Councilor Wang Shih-chien (王世堅), was called a “Communist sympathizer” among other things, for raising concerns.
Controversy reaches a fever pitch
With the NTU ruling delivered, the controversy was reaching a fever pitch. Worse, as former Hsinchu mayor, Lin had to take responsibility for the Hsinchu baseball stadium having to be shuttered indefinitely for safety reasons just days after it had reopened following the completion of a three-year NT$1.2 billion (US$40 million) botched renovation project that left multiple players injured.
Since Lin, as Hsinchu mayor, had overseen the project, this was a major embarrassment and called into question his ability to run an administration. In this case, he apologized and said he would take responsibility.
All the news outlets were having a field day with both the thesis and stadium stories. With such a high volume of articles coming out daily, pan-blue media outlets like United Daily News and TVBS devoted whole sections and segments to the controversy. A public opinion poll taken prior to Lin’s resignation, though formally released after, showed that 48% of the public thought Lin should quit the race if his thesis was revoked, while that number was higher among Taoyuan residents at 62%.
While polling on whether Lin was still a viable candidate was all over the place, political operatives were feeling the heat on the ground, and not just in Taoyuan. The same poll showed President Tsai’s approval rating dropping 7%, a decline which some are attributing to these scandals.
Faced with running internal infighting between those siding with Tsai Ing-wen and the party loyalists, and the pragmatists advocating dumping Lin, Tsai was caught between a series of rocks and hard heads. In the end, she did what must have been a personally humiliating about-face and convened a high-level meeting involving Lin, herself, the vice president, Mayor Cheng and other party heavyweights.
At the end of the meeting, Lin resigned and Legislator Cheng Yun-peng (鄭運鵬) was introduced as his replacement. At this point you might be thinking, okay, this situation has now been dealt with and the DPP can get on with the election and by election day no one will remember this, right?
Not. Even. Close.
A nightmare for the DPP that won't end soon
This is going to be an ongoing nightmare for the party for some time to come, and if things go badly, this could only be the beginning of their problems. So far, only the People’s Liberation Army has managed to eclipse this ongoing saga in the news.
Of the many headaches that this will bring the party, one of the biggest is doubts about the judgement of the party leadership, including Tsai herself. Tsai and her team knew in advance that the thesis issue could be a problem, but accepted his side of the story on it and continued defending it even after NTU had ruled against him.
In a nutshell, Lin claims that in spite of his thesis coming out later than the person he is supposed to have plagiarized over 40% of his thesis directly from — including typos — he claims he can prove through correspondence that he in fact was involved in the research involved in both thesis and he had done the work earlier. The other person disputes this, and NTU agrees.
Lin has said he will appeal the ruling, and resigned to focus on clearing his name of any wrongdoing, and claims that NTU did not admit crucial correspondence as evidence. If he goes through with the appeal, that may keep this in the news cycle for weeks or months.
He has yet, as of this writing, submitted the appeal to the Ministry of Education (MOE). That may or may not be related to a new set of bombshell allegations that not only was the thesis plagiarized, but that he got his assistant to write it for him, and even attend classes for him.
If these allegations turn out to be true, and/or the MOE rejects his appeal, and/or the separate examination on his other thesis at Chung Hwa University rules that it was also plagiarized, the DPP is going to pay a serious political price for having defended his innocence for so long and shown such poor judgement in doing so. Those are three huge landmines to have to navigate if any of them go off.
It's not just Lin that's the problem
It’s not just Lin and their defense of him that is a problem, it also reaches into the government itself. Lin’s thesis advisor was none other than National Security Bureau (NSB) Director General Chen Ming-tong (陳明通).
NTU said it would investigate Chen’s academic responsibility in the case, and has confirmed he will not be teaching at their Graduate Institute of National Development for the fall 2022 term. Chen has claimed he will defend himself, but should more rulings go against him or Lin, then the Tsai administration’s judgement in choosing him as their intelligence chief will also be called into question.
All of this guarantees this is going to remain in the news cycle for quite a while. However, it is worth keeping in mind that, in the end, it could turn out that both Lin and Chen will be completely exonerated, and then the DPP can breathe easily, right?
Well, no. While that would be the best outcome for the DPP, the KMT will have a field day on Tsai’s flip-flopping and infighting will again break out between those who insisted they were innocent and those who wanted to dump them.
Threats of a party split
Tsai and the DPP leadership’s problems do not end there, either. The choice of Legislator Cheng Yun-peng as their replacement candidate is causing problems as well.
Former DPP Legislator Cheng Bo-ching (鄭寶清) apparently did not approve of the party’s judgement on this choice and is openly considering bolting from the party to run on his own, splitting the ticket on the pan-green side. While this could simply be a ploy to extract something he wants from the party, there is talk that he will be making a “big announcement” two days before candidate registration closes.
So far, though it is still early days and he could turn it around, Cheng Yun-peng is not doing very well in the first poll released from My-Formosa, and is trailing KMT candidate Simon Chang (張善政) by 5%. He’s trailing by 11% in a new TVBS poll.
Both polls should be concerning to the DPP. When they launched Lin, he was leading by similar margins.